IT Service Desk

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What is IT Service Desk

The ITIL definition of the IT Service Desk (service operation) is the single point of contact between the service provider and the users. A typical service desk manages incidents and service requests and handles communication with the users. The service desk typically has a help desk component, but its overall goal is to be proactive in improving IT and business processes across the organization. The best service desks are constantly looking for opportunities to run all IT processes, including the help desk, more efficiently. Some key traits of the service desk are:

  • Fully integrating with other ITSM processes
  • Acting as SPOC for all IT areas, applications, and business processes
  • Tracking compliance with service level agreements (SLAs)
  • Providing a self-service capability for incident and service requests, with an integrated service catalog
  • Integrating and communicating with the configuration management database (CMDB)[1]

Background on IT Service Desk[2]

The IT helpdesk function was born in the late 1980s as a support capability to fix IT issues. It was a highly technical function focused on the technology rather than the end users. Early IT helpdesks didn’t have the concept of SLAs or time-based targets for resolving issues. It wasn’t until ITIL came onto the scene in the 1990s, capturing IT Service Management best practices, that the concept of the user-centric IT service desk began to emerge. The service desk was seen as an essential part of “managing IT like a service”.

In the mid-1990s, research by Iain Middleton of Robert Gordon University found that value was derived not only from a reactive response to user issues but also from the help desk's unique position of communicating daily with numerous customers or employees. The information gained about technical problems, user preferences, and what satisfies users can be valuable for the planning and development work of IT services.

With the publishing of ITIL v2 in 2001, the Service Desk function and its role in incident and request management became one of the core components of IT service operations in many organizations. As the decade continued, globalization along with increasing pressures to reduce IT operational costs led many organizations to centralize IT Service Desk functions with many engaging 3rd party support partners to staff them. Outsourcing of IT service desk functions led to further standardization of processes and growth in the market of help desk ticketing software.

Modern technology trends including cloud services, the widespread use of 3rd party components in the IT ecosystem, and advancements in discovery and monitoring capabilities have led to the integration of stand-alone helpdesk ticketing systems into more comprehensive ITSM platforms that serve as the hub of operations not just for the IT service desk, but the entire IT function. As companies seek to further modernize and pursue Digital Transformation initiatives, the IT Service Desk is evolving again to become more business-centric, with greater awareness of business processes and data – in many cases becoming an integrated part of companies’ business operations.

Operations Managed by Service Desk in ITIL[3]

  • Network Operations: It is the ability to monitor the network connections and devices connected to the network remotely. The service desk has to monitor the changes, incidents, and traffic in the network and ensures that the network infrastructure is optimized for the operations of the organization.
  • Systems Operations: It is the ability to manage the core systems of the company. It includes monitoring the performance of the systems, installing software updates, and patches, and managing changes and support for different platforms used in the company’s systems.

Operations Managed by Service Desk
source: Invensis

  • Database Operations: It is the ability of the service desk to maintain the database by monitoring its performance, reviewing the logs, managing the access, and changing control for certain database software such as Oracle.
  • Security Management: It is the ability to protect the organization from internal and external security threats. The duty of the service desk is to check for vulnerabilities in the IT infrastructure, monitor the access logs, and correlate the data available with the security mandates.

IT Service Desk Features[4]

The multi-purpose role IT service desks fulfill within any organization requires a range of applications that expand beyond traditional tech support and management. As such, IT service desk software tends to include the following features:

  • Ticket Management: Enables the automatic prioritization, assignment, and monitoring of incidents and issues, as raised through different channels, for faster resolution.
  • SLA Management: Helps prioritize tickets based on SLAs and determine whether escalation or deadlines should define management rules.
  • Task, problem, asset, release, contract, and change management: Organizes tasks and issues to promote collaboration, minimize disruptions, and ensure smooth transitions & product releases, while benefiting from 360-degree visibility of all your IT and business assets
  • Knowledge base and customer service portal: Creates a database of relevant information, FAQs, and guides that promote self-service and self-help – and drive faster incident resolution. IT users with common queries and issues are directed to the knowledge base as the first course of action.
  • Service Catalog: A centralized location that details to different business units the service available. The catalog also provides a form where users can submit a ticket.
  • Dashboards: Allows for comprehensive visibility of real-time and past data to help with performance, productivity, effectiveness, and other process optimization.
  • Automation: Ensures routine tasks are always performed to completion, freeing up support staff to engage in unique and challenging tasks.
  • Analytics: Collects and studies all relevant data to generate actionable insights that can improve service desk performance and results.

Functions of the IT Service Desk[5]

The service desk acts as a single point of contact between the IT organization and the business for all incident reports, service requests, change notifications, and any other necessary communications. IT Service Desk Responsibilities revolve around the role of the service desk in Incident Management and Request Fulfillment along with communications. Let's take a deeper look at each process and the responsibilities of the service desk.

  • Service Desk Owns the Incident Management Process: In ITIL 2011, the service desk owns the Incident Management process and is responsible for resolving incidents according to service level agreements with the goal of restoring services as quickly as possible and getting the customer back to work. IT service desk responsibilities that are associated with Incident Management include:
    • Incident Management Support - Service desk managers must ensure that adequate tools, processes, and skills are maintained throughout the service desk team to ensure the timely and effective handling of incidents. Without adequate support, the efficiency and performance of this IT service desk process is significantly diminished.
    • Incident Logging and Categorization - Service desk analysts are expected to keep an accurate and up-to-date log of each incident that is reported, including the category/type of incident. Incidents need to be organized and prioritized based on the level of disruption that they cause. A service desk must properly allocate its resources to the handling of the most critical incidents.
    • Incident Resolution - Service desk analysts typically play the role of 1st-level support within the IT organization—they're the ones that answer the phone or respond to your message when you first contact IT, and their goal is always to resolve the incident on the first call and restore service as quickly as possible. In cases where it is impossible for a 1st-level support provider to resolve the issue immediately, the incident may be transferred to a 2nd-level support analyst or Service desk supervisor.
    • 2nd-Level Incident Resolution - Service desk supervisors have responsibilities beyond the resolution of escalated incidents, but they are still expected to get their hands on escalated incidents and either take action themselves or involve specialist support groups or suppliers that can help. External support is sometimes known as 3rd-Level Support—a service desk supervisor should be able to understand the problem and find the right expert that can provide a timely resolution.
    • Handling of Major Incidents - Some incidents are classified as major incidents, meaning that they cause a massive business interruption and need to be fixed immediately. When this happens, the service desk should react by rapidly escalating the issue, recruiting 3rd-level support if needed, and issuing timely communications and status updates to users. Again, the primary goal of the service desk in a major incident is to establish a workaround and restore service as quickly as possible.
    • Incident Management Reporting - If your organization has an established Problem Management process, most of the information you receive about problems will come through the service desk. When an incident is reported, service desk staff work on the issue and manage escalations until a workaround is found. Even when a workaround is found, there may be an underlying issue that will cause the issue to reoccur in the future. In cases where a workaround is found but the error is not fully understood, the service desk team reports the incident to Problem Management where the PM team will conduct a root cause analysis and find an ultimate solution to the incident.
  • IT Service Requests Are Handled Through the Service Desk: Although the service desk handles both Incident Management and Request Fulfillment, it would be a mistake to think that these main IT service desk responsibilities weigh equally on the minds of service desk analysts. In most cases, service requests are relatively minor and don't reflect a high-priority issue. Users may call and request to have their password reset, or for a piece of software to be installed on their machine, or they may simply be requesting information ("How do I access my pay stubs for this year on our employee intranet?"). Still, the service desk ensures that employees have somewhere to go for the most basic IT service issues that they can't resolve on their own. The IT service desk's responsibilities for request fulfillment include:
    • Request Fulfillment Support - Similar to the Incident Management support process, the service desk manager needs to ensure that the tools, processes, personnel, and training are adequately maintained to realize an effective and efficient request fulfillment process. This includes training service desk analysts on how to deliver services for customers as well as building a service catalog and including automated self-service options that proactively reduce the number of service requests and help maintain agreed service levels.
    • Request Logging and Categorization - Service requests, like incidents, are logged and categorized according to their type and priority. Importantly, service desk analysts must include a check step to verify that the person submitting the service request is authorized to do so.
    • Request Model Execution - Request model execution simply means fulfilling customer requests in an appropriate time frame. IT departments should manage expectations by agreeing with the business on the service level to be provided and ensuring that requests are fulfilled within the agreed time schedule.
    • Request Monitoring and Escalation - Service desk staff must work together to ensure that service levels are not breached. This means consistently monitoring the status of all service requests and escalating service requests to a higher resolution level when service level agreements are in jeopardy.
    • Request Closure and Evaluation - The service desk has the same reporting responsibilities for the request fulfillment process as it does for the Incident Management process. If any problems or errors are discovered that require further attention, they should be passed on to problem management for a root cause analysis. Otherwise, the service desk should generate a Request Record with all of the most important information about the request so that it can be documented for future analysis and investigation.
    • Request fulfillment and Incident Management can be equally important processes within the IT organization. When customers can't access their machine because they forget their password, it's important that a member of the service desk staff is available to offer a quick password reset that can get them back online quickly. At the same time, this is exactly the type of service that can be automated through a service catalog that offers self-service. Service desk staff should continuously develop a knowledge base and self-service portal that empowers customers to handle IT issues on their own when it is convenient and reduces the burden on the service desk.
  • The Service Desk Acts as a Single Point of Communication (SPOC): The third major role of the service desk is as a single point of contact between the business and the IT organization for all communications related to IT. In view of what we've already discussed, you might think that the majority of these communications are related to either Incident Management tickets or service requests, and for the most part, you'd be right. Still, there's one other type of communication that forms a major part of the responsibilities of the service desk.
    • The IT service desk manager is responsible for ensuring that users are proactively notified of existing or imminent service outages that could threaten their productivity or lead to excessive call volume. If a number of customers are experiencing an error, there should be a proactive effort to disseminate the solution or workaround throughout the company rather than having every single employee call IT throughout the day for the resolution.
    • In addition, there are times when IT will implement changes that affect the availability of services, or that will result in a reboot of systems that affects access to particular services for a short time. In these cases, IT service desk managers should ensure that users are given advance notice and can prepare for the period of service unavailability.

Service Desk Types[6]

Given below is the description of various Service Desk types according to ITIL or Service Management practices in general.

  • Service Desk types by an internal organization
    • Single level – while it’s not common to have a wide array of subject matter experts within the Service Desk, depending on the services provided, Service Desk may use such an arrangement (e.g., for premium-level service support).
    • Multilevel – the more common organization type, where a Self-Service Portal represents the support starting point (Level 0), and Service Desk is considered to be the first line of support (Level 1 support). More complex incidents are forwarded to the appropriate expert group (Level 2 support), and if needed, the vendor or manufacturer will be contacted (Level 3 support).
  • Service Desk types by size and location
    • Local Service Desk – generally located close to the customer, on location, or within a branch office.
    • Central Service Desk – disregarding the customer’s size or dispersion, Service Desk provides support services from a single central location. May address language, cultural, or time-zone considerations.
    • Virtual Service Desk – while Service Desk staff may be dispersed among a number of locations (even worldwide), by using available technology and the Internet, we can create the illusion of a single centralized Service Desk.
    • Follow the Sun – the most challenging type of Service Desk that supports customers around the globe. The Service Desk staff can’t be appointed by a normal day/night routine, as “day” in this case lasts for a full 24 hours.

Types of Service Desks
source: Advisera

  • Service Desk types by business model
    • Service Desk as a cost center – model in which Service Desk operates under a budget, and is considered to be a cost (or expense) to the company. The main challenge in managing such a Service Desk is to eliminate “hidden” costs.
    • Service Desk as a profit center – while it must cover all of its expenses, Service Desk must also generate profit by charging fees with reasonable margins for provided services. The main challenge is to establish an accurate and profitable service pricing list, without alienating the customers.
  • Service Desk types by ownership
    • In-house – running the Service Desk services within the company or organization. Service Desk personnel are company employees, and therefore a stronger level of management is required in order to manage costs (or profit), staff, and effort.
    • Outsourced – having Service Desk provided by a third party outside the company. May provide lower costs and more efficient use of resources. Services provided, volume, and service levels are determined and agreed upon by contract. While it was a very popular practice a few years ago, it fails on many occasions as it adds another layer of complexity to the existing situation. It could be very useful if you understand your own cost structure very well.
  • Service Desk types by customer orientation
    • Internal – providing Service Desk services internally, within the same organization or company. The company may have several Service Desks that employees contact for support (e.g., IT, facilities, HR, fleet management, etc.).
    • External – providing support to the customers who bought or use our products or services. Service Desk may play a vital role in pre-sales and post-sales customers’ experience.
  • Service Desk types by communication flow
    • Inbound – Service Desk receives calls and messages from the customer and responds accordingly. The customer initiates all communication.
    • Outbound – Service Desk may initiate communication with the customer (or potential customer) in a telemarketing fashion. May be used to contact customers in the early days of service/product usage to increase experience, or to directly sell (upsell) services, e.g., after the customer registers for free products/services.

Service Desk vs. Help Desk[7]

  • The service desk was an evolution of the help desk, born out of ITSM best practice framework ITIL (formerly known as the IT Infrastructure Library), and based on the underlying concept of “managing IT as a service.”
  • A help desk was born of IT-centricity (mainframe computing), whereas a service desk was born of IT service-centricity (the above-mentioned ITIL-espoused approach to delivering IT as a service).
  • Many will say that a help desk provides help, whereas a service desk provides service, i.e. with a service desk there’s a focus on delivering a service to end users with some semblance of customer service.
  • A help desk is considered to be focused on break-fix (what ITIL calls incident management), whereas a service desk is there to assist with not only break-fix but also with service requests (requests for new services) and requests for information (such as “how do I do X?”). Although there’s no reason why a help desk can’t also offer these additional capabilities (other than IT terminology trends).
  • A help desk was an add-on to existing IT activities, whereas the service desk is part of a service-based IT service delivery and IT support ecosystem built around something called “the service lifecycle.” Probably a big reason why the term service desk was used over the help desk in ITIL.
  • Those versed in ITIL will state that a help desk is tactical, whereas a service desk is strategic. This will, of course, differ across organizations.
  • A help desk might be considered as offering a subset of service desk capabilities by some, or be qualified as limited in scope by statements such as “the evolution of help desk to the service desk.”

But of course, one person's help desk is another person's service desk – organizations will call their IT support capability what they want as evidenced by the following HDI research:

Support Center Name Survey.png
source: Atlassian

We see 41% of help desks and service desks are called something else. Plus, there’s no guarantee that the service desks and help desks reported in this HDI survey align with our descriptions above.

Some would argue that help desk and service desk aren’t that different and, looking into history, the terms were often used interchangeably throughout the 2000s. But the important thing to remember is this: for most, a "service desk" is an evolved version of a help desk created in an ITIL mold.

See Also